Alien: Covenant is the digital counterpart to the analogue original, remixing not only Alien and Prometheus but Blade Runner as well.Read More
Reviews of The Riot Club (2014), Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985), and mother! (2017).Read More
A consideration of Life in a Day (2011, dir. Kevin Macdonald) and Cameraperson (2016, dir. Kirsten Johnson) through the Roland Barthes essay The Great Family of Man.Read More
Sunset Boulevard is a great film that dramatises the tension between words and pictures not only in its plot but through its very form. Joe Gillis is an unreliable narrator, using voiceover even from beyond the grave to screen-write his own life, conforming it into a film noir, turning himself into at best an innocent patsy and at worst a scheming, self-aware con man.
However, by then I'd started concocting a little plot of my own...
- Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Gillis is actually a "kept man," bought and paid for, and the emasculation is almost impossible to bear. Witness the glare and musical sting that accompany a salesman's suggestion that, if the lady's paying, Joe might as well opt for the more expensive coat.
There are masochistic and egotistical elements to their relationship that keep Joe in Norma's home and by her side, beyond the financial compensation. As much as he pretends otherwise, he's not that far away from Max. (Those who would deny that there's a sexual component to Joe's relationship with Norma should consider the sheer shame with which he gives Betty a tour of the house once she's discovered his secret.)
Meanwhile, Norma Desmond is well aware of the power of images, of cinema, even if contemporary Hollywood has forgotten this with the advent of sound. When sound first began, cameras had to be sound proofed, limiting their possible movement, a stylistic step backwards for the medium, becoming more literary - or at least this has become the accepted narrative. Similarly, Norma's complaint that the pictures have got small reads as prescient with the ascendancy of television in the coming decade.
You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.
- Cecil B. DeMille (himself)
Gloria Swanson's performance, exaggerated to match her grotesque makeup, evokes silent cinema, navigating the tricky border between camp and tragedy. It's a story of an ageing woman who's been chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, only the allure of stardom and success, however faded, greed, nostalgia and the masochistic and guilty need to 'serve' a master causes those around her to insulate her from reality, to perpetuate the illusion.
Norma is constantly watching herself, trying to reassure herself of this illusion, whether in the multitude of photos from her heyday, screening her old movies at home, her reflection in mirrors, or through the eyes of others (Max at one point offers her feedback on her makeup). Norma needs Joe both to enable her delusions (to worship her, make her feel young again) and as a kind of reality check, although his own cruelty and manipulations prevent him from fulfilling the latter function.
De Mille didn't have the heart to tell you. None of us has had the heart.
- Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Whether Norma sincerely intends to end her life on New Year's Eve or her suicide attempt is yet another performance to get Joe to return (and then, threatening to do it again, to get him to stay), is irrelevant. Unlike words, photographic images have an ontology, have the appearance of being real, and their danger is that they can come to take the place of what they represent. In this moment, image and reality have become conflated.
It's not important whether Norma is suicidal or acting out a plot in which she is suicidal; both will lead to her destruction. Joe believes himself safe in the realm of words (which is perhaps why he's such a lousy screenwriter), which will lead to his destruction.
The image of Hollywood, its artifice, holds sway over every character. Betty, groomed from a child to become an actress, grew up playing on the studio lot and even had her nose 'fixed' when casting directors criticised it. ('Fixed' implying 'corrected' in some way, changing her nose to what it should always have been, her image preceding and superseding her in the same way the street on the studio backlot feels more appealing, more 'real,' than an actual street.)
Look at this street. All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney. All done with mirrors. I like it better than any street in the world.
- Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson)
Although Betty claims being behind the camera appeals to her more, she flirt-acts with Joe at the New Year's Eve party. Subsequently, despite her engagement to Artie (himself an assistant director - with the exception of the repo men, every character is in show biz), she begins to fall for Joe.
Is Betty conflating the script they're working on with her life? Although the film never makes this connection explicit, it's certainly possible (their script, about a a man and a woman who work opposite shifts, mirroring her and Joe's situation, is called 'Untitled Love Story').
(There's also a definite subtext about the way Hollywood treats women, between Betty's nose job, Norma's extensive beauty routine and the fact that DeMille is still making films while Norma is exiled, a recluse. At the same time however, Norma has taken this oppression and turned it into a weapon against those around her. Guilt over her suicide attempt brings Joe back, just as guilt over having made her a star, made her into what she is, having failed her as a husband, is partly what led Max to abandon his directing career behind and become her butler.)
Joe's death scene is painful, awkward, real. Shot in the back once, he continues walking as normal. He's shot again in the back, stumbles and turns, trying to pick up his bag. If he can pick up his bag and walk to the car, if he can appear fine, maintain his cool, everything will be fine.
Later, a gossip columnist dictates her story on the telephone from within what she dubs the "murder house." Joe, in his final few lines of posthumous voiceover, predicts that newspaper headlines will devastat Norma. However, the newsreel cameras ultimately give her the attention she has always craved.
Norma is a star again, albeit now infamous rather than famous. To her and possibly the world, there's little practical difference. Image has surpassed language. Image has surpassed and replaced reality.
Arriving at a crisis point for the X-Men franchise, Logan borrows credibility from whatever sources it can find. However, like the relationship between former X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his genetic derivative, the young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen), Logan ultimately shares its DNA with the modern superhero film, despite their different appearances and occasional embarrassment at the familial connection.
Logan positions itself as a Western but at times it acts if the Western were an entirely defunct genre. Recent Westerns have engaged with the mythos in interesting ways, filtering it through modern sensibilities both in terms of filmmaking and themes (a few examples: The Lone Ranger, Slow West, Meek's Cutoff). In contrast, despite its vaguely dystopian future setting, Logan often feels stuck in the past.
One scene features Laura and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) watching Shane in a hotel room, the camera lingering on the flatscreen TV as Shane tells Joey "there aren't any more guns in the valley." Logan directly borrows sincerity and legitimacy from classical Hollywood without demonstrating any intention to repay them, suggesting a superficial engagement with the genre.
(Logan's positioning as a Western is partly extra-textual, from the film's marketing and so on. The poster evokes Schindler's List and the trailer uses Johnny Cash for much the same purpose - borrowed credibility. It's worth commenting on as so much of this film's existence and power stem from those extra-textual areas, given the history of the franchise, the characters and the cast playing them. It becomes an integral and inseparable part of the experience of watching the film.)
~Mild spoilers follow~
Another almost fatal decision is to have X-24, the film's big bad, be literally a clone of the main character. One of the inspirations for this film, the Old Man Logan comic, has Logan wracked with guilt from mistakenly killing his fellow X-Men; in the film this piece of backstory is transferred to Professor X. X-24 offers a compromise, and it feels like one.
X-24 allows other characters to see Logan as a killer, briefly faking out the audience without actually jeopardising their sympathies with him. Again, the film seems to hearken back more to classical Westerns rather than the revisionist period or anything that that has followed since; Logan is morally conflicted about killing, perhaps, but never morally compromised.
Inevitably, a generic evil scientist is also introduced, the Dr. Frankenstein behind the monster. While given some life by Richard E. Grant, Dr. Rice is a character that exists solely to provide exposition. He's even given a nonsensical personal connection with the hero that supposedly explains his motivations.
X-24 could have been a symbol of Logan's duality, both man and beast, or a reminder of how he still hasn't come to terms with his own mortality and legacy. Instead it and Dr. Rice become standard superhero story devices, albeit ones the film has no real interest in.
(It'd be easy to read X-24 as a meta comment on the nature of franchise filmmaking, recasting, legacy, and so on, the way Jurassic World's plot about engineering bigger and better dinosaurs has been seen as a metaphor for its own lazy film-making. It'd be easy, but still uninteresting.
One of the refreshing ways Logan does diverge from most superhero films is that it never cares too much about maintaining continuity to other films, nor does it ask the audience to care about continuity. Initially, it doesn't even hold the audience's hand, instead building a world through background details. That is, until Logan takes a break to watch a lengthy phone video that lays out Laura and the story's entire backstory. Said video is shot from multiple angles and edited together for maximum dramatic impact despite ostensibly being made with a hidden camera and by a woman fleeing from mercenaries.)
The much-touted R rating helps and hurts Logan in equal measure. While it doesn't approach Deadpool levels, there are a couple of desperate, pandering attempts to prove that this film is for adults. The action is competent and bloody but doesn't always achieve its intended visceral impact, partly because it's also repetitive to the point of comedy. One scene is constructed around showing Logan stab as many people as possible through the skull in slow motion.
At the same time, removing children from the target audience does change things, allowing the story to be less action-driven and to take more time than is customary to connect and breathe with its characters.
While this emotional maturity does sometimes feel at odds with the other "adult" elements, at its best Logan finds ways to embody both simultaneously. For example, there's a striking moment of revenge / body horror towards the end that offers a glimpse of what a successful version of the recent Fantastic Four could have been.
Laura, a.k.a. X-23, is not a particularly unique character - the strong, silent, mysterious, possibly feral child - and yet she is allowed to develop into something interesting. The obligatory family road trip comedy (Paper Moon and Little Miss Sunshine have both been referenced) and the predictable plot digressions (introducing supporting characters who, by being so benign and good-natured, are immediately, obviously, and entirely sacrificial) fall by the wayside.
In their place, the father-daughter relationship between Laura and Logan blossoms, bolstered by the complex father/son, student/teacher, carer/invalid dynamic between Charles and Logan. The third act completely opens up the scope of the film, narratively, emotionally, thematically. Even Shane is brought back in a way that completely redeems the clunky reference to it earlier.
As a result, Logan's climax, its actual climax once the obligatory stabbings are over and done with, is genuinely emotionally affecting. This is all too rare, not just in blockbusters but across cinema.